First has always been a distributed team. Over half of our team (and all of our engineers) work from home. We have team members in all four continental US time zones, and some of us have been working from home for over a decade.
As RE/MAX begins its third week of working from home, it seems like it might be helpful to share from our experience. We’ve put our heads together and collected our top ten tips about how to stay happy, sane, and productive while working from home.
You’ll notice a couple of themes here. One is about setting appropriate boundaries — not too loose, not too strict — between your work and home life. The other is thinking about what you’re missing from the office environment, and taking steps to compensate. That mostly involves communication, but also just social time and community.
Here we go!
1. If at all possible, have a dedicated workspace.
Your home is full of distractions. You won’t eliminate them all, but it really helps to have a dedicated space set aside for work. It helps you get focused, and it’s a good signal for other family members that you’re working and they should keep interruptions to a minimum.
This isn’t possible for everyone, though — especially now with schools closed and older kids home from college. So be tolerant of coworkers who don’t have this luxury!
Fun fact: Kent, our COO, used to work from his “mobile command center” (his car) to avoid two energetic young kiddos when living in a smaller home in California. He still says he did some of his best work from in there.
2. Keep some structure.
Going to work every day, and then coming home, gives a structure and cadence to your day. That’s valuable! When you work from home, if you don’t do something to recreate that structure, it can be disorienting. You can work too much, or not enough, or you can even forget to eat lunch! (Believe it or not, that happens.)
Build some structure into your day. Get dressed and comb your hair (see “Turn on your camera” below). Try to start work at roughly the same time each day, and set a reminder for when you should walk away from your computer at the end of the day. Block off a time on your calendar for lunch, and make sure to use that time for a bite to eat.
Keep up or start a workout routine, too! Even if you didn’t do regular workouts before, it’s a good time to start. You’ll be walking and moving around less, and you can use the time you used to spend commuting exercising.. It will help you stay healthy and keep from going stir crazy. (And while we’re on that subject: it’s still fine and healthy to go outside, as long as you keep the proper distance from other people in your neighborhood.)
3. If you aren’t speaking, go on mute.
You might be surprised how noisy your work environment sounds when it’s picked up by your mic and broadcast into your Zoom meeting or Teams call. Learn the “mute/unmute” keyboard shortcut for whatever tool you’re using for meetings, and stay on mute when you’re listening to others. (This isn’t as important if you have a dedicated office or quiet space at home, but it’s still a good habit.)
Also you should mute your notifications on your computer, as well. If you are constantly getting alerts from your calendar, email, teams, incoming emails, etc. these can get picked up from your computer mic and will distract everyone on a call. For a Mac it’s easy, just hold down the Option key and press the 3 horizontal lines in the top right corner of your screen.
4. Turn on your camera.
Voice-only calls can work just fine if there are only two of you and you know each other pretty well. However, if you add even one more person, it gets more difficult. Non-verbal communication is vital! It makes it easier to hear what people are saying. You can see when others in your meeting are confused, bored, or excited by what you’re saying. You can tell when someone is saying something and doesn’t realize they’re on mute. It helps the people in your meeting stay engaged. And in the current situation, it just helps us all feel less isolated.
You might feel that you don’t look good on camera, or your workspace at home is too messy … but we’re all in the same boat here.
If you are having a one-on-one meeting, and you won’t need to share your screen during your meeting, put in some earbuds, and go outside and take a walk during your meeting!
5. Work visibly.
When you’re in the office, people can see you working. That’s important for at least two reasons: they know what you’re doing, and they can tell whether it’s a good time to interrupt you. So find ways to compensate for that when working for home.
Drop quick notes in chat about what you’re working on and what you’ve accomplished. Make your calendar publicly visible (and keep it up to date) so people can see not only when you’re busy, but what you are doing, and who you’re meeting with. (That’s a good practice anyway, and you can always mark individual meetings private if necessary.) This will help people know when they may be able to interrupt you, or if they should ask to join a meeting that you may have not thought they would be interested in.
Also, wherever possible, have conversations where others can “overhear,” just like they can a lot of the time at the office. Obviously there are some things that require confidentiality, but your default should be to have conversations in the open. Use Teams channels rather than email when possible so others can quickly get context and weigh in if needed. You’ll be surprised how helpful it is. The office environment is full of accidental, serendipitous communication: “Oh, I just heard you guys talking about ___, have you reached out to ___? She/he is an expert in that.” That can’t happen in an email chain, but it happens all the time in group chat. You also will stop cluttering people’s inboxes. An added bonus is that you can say goodbye to 70+ response email chains!
Another way to help everyone on your team know what’s happening is with shared documents. Google docs and Microsoft 360 allow sharing and collaborating on documents together in real time, and you don’t have to wait until a document is “finished” to let other people in on it. In fact, this list of tips includes contributions from several members of our team, working together in a shared Google doc. Another bonus: with shared docs version control is no longer an issue.
6. Give your team social time, not just work time.
Not all communication at the office is “professional” and work-related. You chat with your team, and your friends, about life: weekend plans, sports (oh wait, those are gone now), TV shows, milestones in your kids’ lives, and so on. That’s all important, and part of what makes teams successful.
When working from home, you need that same kind of interaction. Find ways to replicate that “break room” time. At First, we have a “random” chat channel that’s full of jokes, funny gifs, cat videos, and occasionally even serious stuff, as long as it’s not work-related. This also keeps these things out of email and gives them a place where people can go when they have a break — instead of just interrupting their work.
To avoid feeling too isolated, schedule some social time. For example, the First engineering team has a regularly scheduled Zoom call every Friday afternoon. We join it and chat while we continue to work. We’ll talk about weekend plans, things we’re learning, current events … whatever comes to mind! And of course, sometimes what comes to mind is what we’re working on, so occasionally an actually productive, work-related conversation will break out. But that’s not the point; just spending time together is the point. It’s come-and-go … there’s no obligation to join if you’re busy or focused on something, and nobody stays for the entire time. But we all join in a lot of the time, and it helps us be a strong team.
Also, sometimes social time is what happens in between meetings. Feel comfortable logging in a bit early, or taking the first 5 minutes or last 5 minutes of a meeting to chat about non-work stuff. This is a good time to build the social bonds that help teams be more productive.
7. Use pictures, emoji, and animated GIFs.
Our personalities are part of what makes work fun and ties teams together, but personalities can be obscured when most of your communication is in writing. Pictures and emoji can help fill that gap! Longtime remote worker (and Denver resident) Tim Berglund posted a wonderful video of “work from home” tips last week, and starting at the 8:27 mark he does a great job of explaining the importance of emoji in casual written conversation. The whole video is good, but you should definitely watch that section.
8. Work just invaded your home! So don’t worry about home invading your work.
It’s completely natural for family members, including kids and pets, to occasionally make an appearance in your videoconferences. As long as they’re dressed (the people, not the animals) don’t worry about it … it’s actually more disruptive to try to shoo them out of the room. On the First engineering team, Jeremy’s cat Frank, Elisa’s three dogs, and Ben’s son Reuben all make regular appearances in meetings, and we all know and love them.
This applies to work hours as well. While you should definitely set boundaries and limit your working hours, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll spend a little more time working, if only because you don’t have a commute anymore. So it’s not a big deal if one of your kids needs some attention during the day, or if you need to walk the dog in between meetings. In fact, if you have 15 minutes between meetings, just enjoy your family or take a walk. Happiness and good mental health are as important for productivity as efficient time management.
9. Consistently communicate your goals and progress.
Communication is always one of the most important things you can do within a team. Lack of communication is often a contributing factor, if not the top reason, for teams failing. Some of the items we listed above will actually help with this — regardless of whether you are remote. Having decisions and conversations happen in shared chat channels means that everyone can follow along and understand how we got to a decision. Having calendars open will let others know what you are working on and whether they can interrupt you (or ask to join a meeting).
Leaders should also take advantage of these tools to create structure for their teams, which is more important than ever in this crisis. You can use open communication tools in how you set your strategy, your quarterly goals, and your weekly and daily projects. Teams operate more effectively when they know where they are going, why they are going there, and what they can do today to help get there.
Wherever possible, be transparent. At First, we have a shared document with our quarterly goals, how we are measuring those goals, and what we are doing this week towards accomplishing those goals. We also create dashboards that update in real-time around key metrics.
Also, be consistent. We have a weekly meeting that anyone can attend (via Zoom), where we discuss progress towards our goals and what we are going to accomplish this week to push forward that progress. This consistent cadence grounds the team and gives everyone a sense of direction. It also builds trust and helps provide everyone context of what people are working on and why it is important.
With transparent and consistent communication, there are no surprises at the end of a quarter. We have all been tracking along, and we all can be leaning into the next quarter to do an even better job.
10. Find your own style!
Lastly, we are all different, and we work in different ways. Experiment with new ideas, and keep things fresh. Your team is different from ours. Create your own traditions and use your own tools. There is no right or wrong way to work remotely.
We hope that these tips will inspire you to work more effectively and be happier as a remote teammate!